TONE & SOUND QUALITY -
What Makes the PERFECT Guitar Sound?
The discussion on tone is one which is often confusing and fraught with conflict and animosity (especially on forums). One person says that a guitar has “bad tone” and someone else responds that it is all a matter of “personal taste”. In this article, we aim to provide some brief and humble guidance with hopes to contribute to the discourse.
Subjective and objective aspects of tone and sound quality
In our experience, a large part of unnecessary debate comes from some confusion of what we shall call the distinction between “tone” and “sound quality”.*
Sound has subjective and objective aspects to it. We will refer to the objective aspect as “sound quality”. By “objective”, we mean that it is a quality that can be measured. Some objective aspects would be volume, responsiveness, balance and clarity. Although we don’t generally use scientific tools to measure a guitar before buying it, we do rely on our subjective senses to give us an idea of these qualities of the guitar.
The subjective aspect of sound is commonly referred to as the “tone” of the guitar. When you say this guitar sounds like brand X, you are describing the subjective tone of it. Essentially, it is the “flavour” of the sound.Two common categories for subjective tone are “traditional” and “modern”. Some examples of traditional sounding guitars are Martins and Martin-style guitars like Collings, Santa Cruz. Examples of modern sounding guitars are brands like Taylor, Furch, and Goodall.
In the world of solo luthiers, Kim Walker and TJ Thompson are well known for building traditional sounding guitars and Ervin Somogyi and Jeff Traugott make more modern sounding guitars. Of course, there are many solo luthiers who fall within a blend of the two.
The notion of “good” sound
With this distinction in mind, we are faced with the seemingly impossible task of defining what GOOD sound is. As a large component of sound is subjective, coming up with any purely objective definition of “good” is a practice in futility. That said, we hope to bring some clarity and greater fruitfulness to the discussion by (i) distinguishing the subjective from the objective aspects of sound and (ii) laying out some indicators of “good” quality in relation to the objective aspects.
Drawing an analogy to food, if you do not like a particular flavour, raw fish (sashimi) for example, it will likely not be the right dish for you regardless of how fresh or immaculately prepared the fish is. Similarly, if raw fish is your favourite dish in the world, but if the quality was not up to standard, you would not be able to enjoy it either. Therefore finding the right guitar is not just about getting the right tone, but also the objective sound quality that comes with it.
We would not be able to guide you on what tone you like as that is entirely subjective and may draw in influences such as the type of music you grew up with, or a particular artist that you love. Personally, we are a huge fan of John Mayer and hence love that traditional tone for playing his music. On the other hand, we are also huge fans of fingerstyle guitar where the modern tone is more commonly heard in such pieces of music.
Some objective components of sound
Now onto the objective areas of sound. As a disclaimer, this is a very rough guide and is in no way intended to be a comprehensive discussion on the topic as there are other components worthy of in depth discussion (but do reach out if you want to know more!). Additionally, there is, to some extent, still some element of subjectivity as to what is optimal in terms of sound quality. What is optimal to some extent depends on the style you play and how you play it.
That said, a discussion of the objective components of sound is still helpful as, unlike tone which is entirely subjective, at least some guidelines can be given in terms of what is considered “good” or “better”.
Projection refers to how well a guitar is able to throw its sound out. If a guitar projects well, it will sound like it is being played next to you even though it may be being played far away. A guitar which projects better is generally considered to be better. The projection of a guitar is a function of all the factors discussed below (and more).
More often than not, acoustic guitars are played acoustically, i.e. not plugged in. Hence, having a certain level of volume is important for us to hear ourselves play and to enjoy the sound. However, this does not mean that a louder guitar is necessarily a better guitar. There is a certain level of volume where it is loud enough and any additional volume might start to be tiring.
It also largely depends on how you play the guitar. A person who only strums might find most guitars sufficiently loud since a plectrum/pick is employed. Someone who plays fingerstyle without any fingernails and only with the flesh of their fingers might be more sensitive to volume and might require a louder instrument.
Bottom line: Louder doesn’t mean better. But a minimal level of volume is certainly required.
Another related factor would be “Headroom”. This is often defined as the volume the guitar can be pushed to without much distortion. As a general rule, a minimal amount of headroom is necessary for a guitar to be usable. Beyond that point, what is optimal depends on the individual’s taste and playing style. Usually softer top woods like Cedar and Engelmann Spruce have lower headroom whereas stiffer woods like Adirondack Spruce have maximum headroom. A heavy handed finger picker could require a guitar with higher headroom whereas a light strummer could even find Cedar to be perfect for his use.
Headroom is often thought to be a trade off with responsiveness, which might be a real issue for guitars that aren’t built well. But with a luthier who knows what they are doing, they can turn the stiffest top species, Adirondack Spruce, into a sensitive, responsive fingerstyle guitar while also maintaining that headroom.
Responsiveness refers to the ease of getting the guitar to sing and respond to your touch. It is related to, but different from, volume. A loud guitar is not necessarily responsive, and a responsive guitar may not be loud.
As a loose analogy, both a Toyota and a Ferrari can be driven at a sufficiently high speed of say 100 kilometers per hour or 60 miles per hour. However, the accelerator of the Toyota does not allow you to control the degree of speed the same way a Ferrari’s would (in that pressing it harder doesn’t produce the same amount of acceleration as if you did the same action on a Ferrari) . The Ferrari in this case would be considered more “responsive”.
In general, softer top woods like Cedar and Engelmann Spruce tend to be more responsive but as we have already mentioned above, a stiffer wood like Adirondack can similarly be made responsive in the hands of a good luthier.
There is much complexity behind deriving responsiveness in building a guitar, but in most cases, a lightly built guitar (or rather a lightly braced top), will result in a more responsive guitar. However, an excessively lightly built guitar could explode from the tension of the strings pulling on the top. So building a responsive guitar is a balancing act between keeping the guitar at its limit of being lightly built but not snapping under the tension.
Perhaps unintuitively, a more responsive guitar does not necessarily mean that it is better. The optimal level of responsiveness depends on one’s playing style. While a fingerstyle player would value a high level of responsiveness, a bluegrass player may not need, or even want, the same level of responsiveness. It is also worth noting that an overly responsive guitar punishes sloppy playing as the mistakes become more apparent, like how an overpowered car punishes careless driving.
Balance refers to how all the strings and frequencies are at the same level, and do not outshine one another. When you hear terms used to describe a guitar’s sound like bass heavy, or mid scooped, these are characteristics of an unbalanced guitar.
This is one aspect of objective sound quality that is very subjective in terms of what is optimal. A perfectly balanced guitar might be considered by some as the epitome of building a guitar. However, it does not mean that it is a “better” guitar. Very often, people’s ears prefer the sound of a bass heavy guitar and those tend to be a little more popular. Personally, we think that a more balanced sound is preferable as it gives the player more control over which frequencies to emphasise.
Different playing styles might also require a different balance to some extent. A well balanced guitar is especially crucial for fingerstyle guitar. As a solo artist playing all the parts of a song on one guitar - bass line, melody, accompaniment - it is important that all registers of the guitar respond and sing equally, allowing the player to control and emphasise different aspects of the song. Bluegrass or heavy strummers who play acoustically might prefer a dominant bass, which is why the Dreadnought is a popular model amongst such players. In contrast, players who play plugged into a sound system or are recording might need a guitar with less bass frequencies as that produces a cleaner and easier to manage amplified or recorded sound.
On top of an equal response across the strings, it should be noted that balance also involves an equal response throughout the fingerboard for each string. A guitar that maintains its sound across the length of the entire fretboard (and does not sound “dead” halfway down the neck) is generally considered to be better.
This is perhaps one of the most important factors to consider when we are talking about a good guitar. Clarity defines how detailed the notes of the guitar sound. A guitar that lacks clarity is considered muddy sounding, and this is a sign of a guitar that is not optimal.
At the risk of sounding snobby, clarity would not be easily picked up by the untrained ear unless there is a point of reference. A simple way to hear relative muddiness is to play your guitar with a piece of cloth draped across the top.
Muddiness comes from various causes, one of which could be the guitar being overbuilt. Other major factors affecting clarity of the guitar is also the way the guitar is voiced via the bracing and thicknessing of the wood, which could cause the guitar to have a loose bass with varying levels of decay or too much low mids. This is often the difference heard as you compare a mass produced instrument with a well made handcrafted one.
In a way, there is some correlation between responsiveness and clarity, though they are not entirely related.
To conclude, while the overall tone and sound of a guitar might be subjective, we are still able to identify what a good sound quality is through the objective parameters discussed above. Do note that these are just some of the factors to consider with regards to good sound; while not mentioned in this article, there are other very interesting factors such as sustain and note decay, fundamental presence, harmonic overtone content and dynamic range, to name a few. And as with most things, practice makes perfect. Having a trained ear to identify and discern good sound definitely takes some practice so do keep an open mind about some of the points above discussed even if you aren’t able to yet hear the difference.
We will be discussing this topic in more depth soon in a comprehensive guide on choosing your dream guitar. If you would like to be notified when we do so, or when we release the next article, leave your email address below to be part of our mailing list.
Disclaimer: This article was written after consulting luthiers with decades of experience and we have tried our best to keep it as factual as possible. That said, the points made are of course open for debate and we do not claim any opinion we make to be the gospel truth.
The views we express here are our own and not specifically that of any luthier we represent (though this article was generally informed by some discussion with them!). Special thanks to Wayne from https://luthier.sg/, Isaac Jang and Joel Michaud for their kind input.
*Of course, we note that this distinction may be referred to differently by others and we do not claim that this is the “official” terminology. However, they will suffice for the purposes of this article